Field Notes: Integrating livestock with woodland

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JMT articleThis report was published on the John Muir Trust Website (6th June 2019)

Campaigns Co-ordinator Mel Nicoll reflects on land use in Andalucia, Spain

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“You can eat lupins?! But I thought they were poisonous!” we cried in response to Ernestine as she showed us around the incredible piece of land that for the past 30 years she and the Fundación Monte Mediterráneo have been restoring and managing as part of Spain’s fabled “dehesa” landscape. However, I can vouch for the fact that lupins (which I understand are not the same variety of decorative lupins we are used to) are both a tasty and popular snack in the Iberian Peninsula and, historically, were an important food stuff for the poor – after careful soaking and preparation! This unexpected bit of knowledge was just one of many things I learnt during a week with the Fundación on its beautiful Dehesa de San Francisco in south western Spain; size-wise this compares approximately to the size of the Trust’s Schiehallion property but in a rolling rather than mountainous landscape. It was also significantly warmer and drier!

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The team in Spain

The aim of these trips, fully funded thanks to an Erasmus+ NET Key Action 1 project and co-ordinated by the firm of ARCH, is to provide training courses for representatives from Scottish organisations involved in the natural and cultural heritage sectors. Our mission – to learn more about the immensely important “dehesa” system of land management and reflect on similarities and differences to – but perhaps also potential opportunities for – land management back in Scotland. It was invaluable to have this time and space away from the office and the normal routine and, most of all, to share it with people who were happy to sit up late into the night deep in conversation on what we had seen and learnt each day, to a soundtrack of rich birdsong and incredibly loud frogs croaking!

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Native cattle grazing in wood pasture

The “dehesa” landscape and way of managing land is an ancient one, typically a feature of land considered “marginal” due to topography and relatively low soil fertility and which evolved to maximise the limited natural resources and seasonal variations. It is characterised by carefully-managed, low density woodland (as low as 60-80 trees per hectare) in which the trees are an integral part of a farmed landscape (rather than simply as shelter belts on the margins of fields) which is grazed by cattle, sheep, pigs and goats on an extensive basis. The trees – here predominantly evergreen and cork oak and carefully pruned into a distinctive “copa” or wineglass shape – provide shelter from extreme weather/temperature but also nutrition. Having tended only to hear of the negative impacts of grazing animals on woodland it was a real eye-opener for me to see in practice how they can live in harmony with nature with careful management. The trees are not managed as a timber crop as such, although the harvesting of cork oak every nine years brings in a welcome income, especially the third harvest, by which time the mature cork commands a premium price.

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Cork oak

The animals are moved carefully from one area to another throughout the year according to the topography of that particular bit of land and what grows where, seasonal variations in ground cover and weather. This is vital to maintaining soil stability and fertility as well as to protecting and maintaining the rich pasture that has been carefully created and nurtured over many years. We were surprised to find that, in contrast to what has often become a negative view of the impact of sheep on the UK’s uplands, sheep here are considered a landscape asset and have given rise to an old and positive saying that translates as “sheep make the landscape.” This appears also to be reflected in the German expression “sheep have a golden step.” Thankfully, the enormous mastiffs which guard the flocks – sleeping out with them at night – were a lot friendlier to humans than their initial appearance suggested, albeit on the alert when some of us went out for a run at dawn!

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Mastiff taking a well-earned break from guarding the flocks

The variety and combination of livestock farming and productive timber gives a multiple income stream which can spread financial risk, but it is still challenging to make a profit due to the high labour costs involved in managing land in this way. The Dehesa de San Francisco is able to attract a premium price for its meat products and wool thanks to its organic certification. The non-vegetarians amongst us sampled Ibérico ham that takes five years from birth of the pig to sale of the end product, at which point it retails for the princely sum of 20 euros for just 80g and is eagerly imported by consumers from as far away as Switzerland and Germany.

Jamón Ibérico de bellota

A stand-out feature of carefully-managed dehesas is the incredible biodiversity – a “Bioblitz” carried out on the Dehesa de San Francisco in 2016 had identified over 720 species, with a further 200 more unidentified during the official 24 hours it ran for. This compared to 425 for the Spanish national average result! It was uplifting to do my early morning yoga practice under the watchful eye of swallows, to be buzzed by beeeaters with their incredibly colourful plumage on our peregrinations around the estate, and for childhood memories of the rich, Downland meadows where I grew up to be triggered from somewhere deep within. From a landscape perspective the abundant oaks and other trees of varying ages, shapes and sizes and stretching as far as the eye could see, made it quite simply a beautiful place to be.

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Species-rich pasture

Nonetheless, there were sobering aspects to reflect on, such as the devastating loss of trees to the “seca” fungal disease (Phytophthora cinnamomi) and how this is being exacerbated by climate change. Deer numbers have to be managed for tree health but can encroach from neighbouring estates, counter-acting the efforts of landowners who are trying to maintain them at levels which will allow for successful tree regeneration.

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Monitoring evergreen and cork oak regeneration/planting success

Loss of the shepherding tradition is a particular concern for the Fundación which is working hard to promote the environmental and economic benefits of the ancient practice of transhumance whereby sheep are moved at the start of the summer to the high, mountain pastures in the north of Spain. Here they benefit from the rich summer meadows whilst the pastures back in the south are rested during the lean and dry months. From an initial few hundred sheep moved, the Fundación hopes to move thousands in the coming years. This benefits not only the Fundación’s land but has also seen the recruitment, training and employment of shepherds, the restoration of old shepherd’s huts (complete with solar power!) and the conversion of some northern pastures to organic status whilst they are still relatively untouched by modern farming practices, guaranteeing they retain their high ecological value.

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Merino sheep on the Fundacion’s land

A visit early in the week to meet the local environment minister and look around the municipal government’s museum was a graphic reminder of the importance of tree and ground cover to soil stability – display panels showed us how the land in this area could rapidly become an impoverished desert if this system is abandoned and scrub takes over, bringing a risk of major fires and subsequent erosion. The Fundación is playing its part in minimising this risk through the care it lavishes on its land but also through delivering and supporting a raft of visionary projects which it hopes will persuade more people to adopt similar practices when they see the economic as well as environmental benefits these can bring. We all returned to Scotland excited about the prospects for far greater integration of livestock with woodland in Scottish agriculture as a result.

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Shield bugs on oak tree

Overall, though, I was most struck by the interplay and interdependency of the different land uses and incredible attention to detail in the management of the trees, pasture and livestock. Just one example of this was learning of the special calculation done each year into the anticipated acorn crop and limit set accordingly on the number of pigs that can be reared in order to retain organic status for pork production. Such an ethos is surely something that John Muir would have approved of, regardless of whether in sunny, southern Spain or on the side of a somewhat soggier Scottish mountain:-  “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

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Huge thanks to ARCH, Erasmus+, team mates from the trip and to the Fundación Monte Mediterranea.

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